Today was a big day in the aviation world; the first ever commercial, long-haul flight to use 100% sustainable jet fuel is crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Taking off from London Heathrow shortly after 11.45am today (November 28), the Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 is being completely powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) made up of used cooking oils and plant-based products. It’s pretty air-mazing what you can do with some agricultural waste these days…
Virgin Atlantic have said that this test flight will show that SAF is a safe replacement for normal kerosene-based jet fuel. Although no paying customers are onboard the flight; passengers include Richard Branson (Virgin Atlantic founder and president), Mark Harper (Transport Secretary), and Shai Weiss (Virgin Atlantic chief executive).
The flight was partially funded by the UK government. It’s been hailed as a demonstration of the potential to significantly reduce net carbon emissions from flying. Commercial flying currently accounts for up to 3% of global carbon emissions but just 0.1% of fuel in planes is currently SAF due to its expense. SAF is considered a vital way of cutting net emissions as it doesn’t require special engines or any modifications to current aircrafts. However, SAF is currently only made in small volumes and costs between three to five times as much as regular jet fuel.
Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic chief executive, said: “There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place. Flight 100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”
Transport secretary, Mark Harper, said: “Today’s 100% SAF-powered flight shows how we can decarbonise transport both now and in the future, cutting lifecycle emissions by 70% and inspiring the next generation of solutions”. Harper also said ahead of the flight’s departure that is was a “really big step forward”.
Not everybody is wholly convinced by this sustainable aircraft, however. Scientists and environmental groups are still very skeptical. Cait Hewitt, policy director of the Aviation Environment Federation, said: “The idea that this flight somehow gets us closer to guilt-free flying is a joke.” She added that for the time being, “the only way to cut CO2 from aviation is to fly less.”
Matt Finch, from the campaign group Transport and Environment, said: “It’s a well-intentioned flight that’s been poorly executed and it’s been poorly executed because of a fuel that’s going into the plane. The fuel going in is just simply not sustainable”.
Five commercial plants to produce SAF in the UK are in the pipeline to be built by 2025. The fuel used in the flight today was imported from both the US and the EU.
It’s certainly not the perfect solution but it’s certainly a step flight in the right direction, hey?